As you head south on the NJ Turnpike after dinner in the city, you glance to the right and there in your passenger seat is a coat, but not your coat, and you are beyond the point of no return. You have a huge client meeting tomorrow morning that you need to be rested for, but you also need what is in your coat, not this coat.
Maybe it belongs to someone you just had dinner with, or maybe it’s the coat of a complete stranger. Who knows after a thimbleful of good bourbon, or maybe it was a glass, you aren’t sure because it was a long night with good friends, or at least you think they were good friends but it could have just been the bourbon talking. Maybe you should pull over and dig into the pockets and do a little snooping, what’s an old coat among friends you think, and then wonder, if the same thing happened to Marty, would he stoop to such a level as spy on his old friend Frank?
Hell yes he would.
But you have the decency and fortitude to wait until you get home to rifle through the pockets of the unknown coat. Your old self might have pulled over at the next rest area and greedily padded down the cashmere — at least it looks like cashmere — for secrets to the universe. But you also know that given the bourbon imbibed a few hours ago, pulling over to the side at 12:30 a.m. would not be good form.
Your eyes glaze over as you pass the frenzied activity of Newark Liberty Airport. A trail of planes hovers in three-minute air traffic formation, while on the horizon trains whiz by, and car headlights bore down at you from overpasses and the no-trucks lane. A whiff of Elizabeth (the city, not the old girlfriend, alas) penetrates your car as the lights of the co-generation plant wink at you. What is co-generation, you wonder? Sounds like a cross between sex and power.
You must stay alert, so you return to brood over the mystery coat. Your mind races at the coat’s possibilities: The Brotherhood of the Traveling Coat, not to be confused with that movie you saw with your daughter. What was it, the Sisterhood of the Antsy Pants?
Where has this coat been? What has it seen? What are its secrets, its smells?
You suddenly are overwhelmed by the memory of the gamey scent of your grandpa’s hunting jacket, a musty mix of pipe tobacco and hounds, odors that are extinct in your antiseptic world of no smoking, save the occasional cigar in a foursome or game of Texas Hold ‘em, and clean, quail-free dogs who frequent dog parks and dog spas and who knows what other kind of dog-indulgent activities. It almost makes you want to cry.
God, to just have a mangy hunting dog at your feet right now, smelling of skunk and fish and no baths. Except that would be a lousy smell left in your Lexus.
You are overcome with nostalgia mixed with drowsiness as you picture your grandpa’s old hunting shack in the woods. So you crack the window for a cold rush of air to revive you and inhale a big gulp of Eau de Rahway. And return to your wondering of the wonders of the coat.
Maybe tucked into the breast pocket are tickets to the theater? Should you use them? Fair game! Call a blast from the past and spring the surprise of Broadway on her… or McCarter, a much easier commute. Hell, they even have Tony winners there these days. When was the last time you went to a show? It’s been way, way too long. What was it, one of those revivals with a B movie star bringing in the box office and doing a half-assed job on stage? But it’s always fun to see what a movie star looks like in nose-hair proximity. They’re never quite as attractive as they are on the silver screen… always shorter and with strangely oversized heads.
To be a star, it seems like you need a really big head. Note to self, you will never be a movie star. Your head is in proportion to the rest of your body, or so you have always assumed.
You reminisce about the Great White Way (why do they call it that?) and recall the glass-topped coffee table in your family’s den growing up (back then there were no “Great Rooms”) stuffed with a haphazard collage of Playbills and ticket stubs from Lincoln Center and the Met and the Schubert and the Blue Note, The Man of La Mancha and Aida and Richard Harris blabbering about MacArthur Park and some cake melting in the dark, and Dvorak and Dizzy Gillespie and The Sound of Music (yes, it was on Broadway first).
Whatever happened to that table?
You are bowled over by the loss of that table full of memories, of your dead parents and their long-gone era of original musicals and Leonard Bernstein and dressing up for the opera and the theater. Unlike today’s jeans and running shoes donned in a box at the Met that would have cost half a year’s salary but is now a pittance for a hedge fund guy.
You want to pull over and throw the coat out the window. For whatever reason, it’s bringing back too many bittersweet memories to deal with on this too-long drive home. You need to concentrate on the driving, not the musicals you’ve been missing the last half of your middle-aged life.
What if your friend, if it really was your friend whose coat this is, or the unknown coat owner, is actually a drug dealer, and there is some leftover stash in the inside coat pocket? If you pull over you’ll get nailed for crystal meth, so you once again think twice and keep plugging away, head for home sweet home, where there are other coats and no drugs and no plans for musicals or ballets, but that’s ok, you can always go SRO at the last minute. Maybe spontaneity is the way to go — who needs to buy tickets in advance and then have to cancel them because of work or your ex changing plans at the last minute and finally you have a spare evening to hang with your kids.
But what if your kids are into drugs? If your friend — the one who now has your coat — is a dealer, well that means they could get it anywhere. Crystal meth just needs a few cold pills and a chemistry set, or so you saw on Breaking Bad. Maybe you should try just a little bit sometime, see what it’s like in case your kids get into it, so you can relate. No, no, just kidding, not a good idea, but at least it’s daring, something out of the ordinary, beyond the pale.
What if there’s an airline ticket to somewhere exotic in the front right pocket? You’ve never been to Bali. The coat owner has probably already booked another ticket. Drug dealers fly all over the place. Bali would be cool. But didn’t you hear about terrorists or something awry going on there? Perhaps Bali is not as cool as it used to be. And no one gets plane tickets in advance anymore anyway.
You shake the cobwebs out of your head and keep going, focusing on the task at hand, not plays and drugs and how predictable your life has become. Even tonight’s dinner was a bit too predictable. You had really been looking forward to seeing your old business school buddies, maybe a little too much, since you don’t get out all that much these days and when you do it’s with a painful blind date where small talk is agonizing, or with your kids, who don’t talk much either, just text away on their smartphones. So dinner with old friends on an expense account (yes you are cheap even though you are filthy rich in comparison with the rest of the world) sounded appealing. And it was pretty fun at first, laughing at everyone’s receding hairlines and paunches and possible dye jobs. Who has jet black hair at 57 if he isn’t Asian? And deteriorating marriages — some of them on their second or third — and money-pit kids in college who will likely come back home to roost after their $400,000 educations.
If you weren’t bummed out before, now you really are.
Like this forlorn coat draped in the seat beside you. Navy blue, a little frayed at the collar but otherwise in decent shape, providing protection against the elements, the outer garment for the uniform that is likely equally sturdy and well-constructed, a Brooks Brothers gray worsted wool suit, starched white shirt now wilting after a day on the town, club tie.
Or maybe, just maybe, if this is not the coat of your friend, the outfit beneath it is a little hipper, a bit more colorful and daring. Perhaps the owner is wearing a red shirt (Egads!), a funky tie, a black suit, or tweed jacket and jeans. This conservative, predictable coat is just the only one that keeps him really warm.
Up flashes the exit sign for Route 9, just a few more minutes to Princeton. Goodbye Turnpike, hello New Brunswick.
You approach Raceway, your favorite place for “cheap” gas on Route One before the passing parade of price gougers in the Princeton corridor, and decide to pull in. You could use some cheap gas after the $800 dinner bill, but more importantly, you can’t wait any longer to find out what’s in that coat.
“Filler up, premium unleaded,” you say. Oops, senior moment, regular gas hasn’t been around in 30 years. The attendant looks confused but takes your Visa Card and starts pumping. It’s what you love most about the Garden State — Full Service.
You reach over and frisk the side pockets, which are sadly empty, save a few balled-up Kleenexes. Then the breast pocket, where you find a tiny, folded slip of paper. You open it up and find a Chinese fortune. You squint to make out the 4 point type — even your bifocals won’t do the trick here — and read aloud:
“You are going to have some new clothes.”
A new coat? Or a wardrobe for somewhere exotic? Or a dinner jacket for the theater?
Maybe. But it’s definitely time to get a red shirt.
Wendell Wood Collins is director of corporate relations at Princeton University’s Bendheim Center for Finance. She lives with her daughters in Pennington.